After three days of stimulating and thought-provoking presentations, displays, and discussions, the “Legacy of 1848” conference concluded in Northfield, Minnesota, on April 2, 2017. Sponsored by the Stoltenberg Institute for German-American Forty-eighter Studies and organized by Drs. Joachim “Yogi” Reppmann (Northfield, Minnesota) and Don Heinrich Tolzmann (Cincinnati, Ohio), the conference attracted speakers, participants, and guests from the United States, Germany, and Denmark.
Always educational and often highly emotional, the conference stimulated everyone to reflect on the challenges that confronted our forebears, how they dealt with and often overcame them, and how mankind can learn and profit from the collective legacy of these brave men and women. As was made obvious to all conference attendees, our ancestors’ challenges didn’t exist in a vacuum of time, only to disappear at their deaths. Acknowledging these trials, studying their root causes, and familiarizing ourselves with the methods used in combating them, are indispensable for a world where cultural differences are celebrated, not vilified.
Throughout the conference, echoes of the philosopher George Santayana’s statement that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” reverberated throughout Northfield’s St. John’s Lutheran Church. This famous admonition, which has been thoughtlessly repeated to the point of becoming a mind-numbing bromide, took on new currency throughout “The Legacy of 1848 through Today.” As the conference organizers intended, the word “legacy” assumed great importance, for the real and lasting legacy of the influential immigrants of 1848 was their elevation of freedom as the most unifying and integral component in a world community comprised of so many diverse parts.
The conference opened at four o’clock on March 30, 2017, in the conference center of Northfield’s lovely St. John’s Lutheran Church. After an hour-long welcome reception, where presenters, participants, and attendees re-established old connections and forged new ones, Pastor Klaus Lemke-Paetznick (Wilhelmshaven, Germany) gave an insightful talk about Martin Luther’s childhood. This timely presentation — Luther posted his ninety-five theses five hundred years ago on October 31, 1517 — was enhanced by a pictorial exhibit, which chronologically highlighted significant moments in his childhood of the seminal Protestant reformer.
The conference kicked off in earnest at 8:30 on the following morning. Deftly moderated by Dee Eicke, Pastor Lemke-Paetznick, and Dr. Reppmann, the ensuing presentations and discussions of the first day were primarily devoted to Holocaust education. Participants and presenters included Steve Hunegs (executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas, Minneapolis), Herbert Quelle (German Consul General, Chicago), Carol Kahn-Strauss (Leo Baeck Institute, New York City), Charles Fodor (Hungarian Holocaust survivor), Dr. Gabrielle Robinson (Jewish Federation, South Bend, Indiana), Dr. R. Don Keysser (GACC, Bloomington, Minnesota), Prof. Dr. Gerd-Winand Imeyer (Honorary Consul General of Bulgaria, Hamburg Chamber of Commerce), and Dr. Esther Seha (Minneapolis).
The presentations and discussions were peppered with personal and familial stories, which placed the stain of the Holocaust in a most moving context. Particularly poignant was the presentation of Charles Fodor, whose presence at the conference would not have been possible were it not for the chance intercession of a compassionate but nameless individual more than seventy years earlier. Dr. Peter Lubrecht’s talk about growing up as a German-American in New York City drove home the point that the repercussions of the Holocaust often migrated across the Atlantic affecting many German-Americans in an insidious, if less visceral way.
After a top-notch keynote address delivered by Chicago’s Consul General Herbert Quelle, the evening concluded with the world premiere of Stephan Witthoeft’s documentary, A Flensburg Perspective: Erna de Vries and the Holocaust Boxcar. This moving film not only highlighted the Holocaust’s horrors, but also documented the efforts to bring a Holocaust boxcar (used to transport German Jews to concentration camps) to the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Playing a significant role in the acquisition of this important historical artifact was one of the conference’s organizers, Dr. Joachim “Yogi” Reppmann. A ninety-three-page publication chronicling the “Untold Stories” of the Holocaust boxcar was also presented to the conference’s attendees. The boxcar exhibit at the Fagen’s museum will be an important and tangible historical reminder that “anyone who does not remember that inhumanity exists, is susceptible to being infected again.”
The day concluded with the sixtieth birthday party for conference co-organizer Dr. Reppmann, which was held at Northfield’s Froggy Bottoms River Pub. Providing entertainment for the celebration was local guitarist/singer Todd Thomson, who was accompanied by Herbert Quelle on the harmonica. Quelle, a leading German diplomat, recently authored Monika’s Blues, a book seamlessly weaving the harmonica’s importance in the history of blues music with the author’s reflections on African-Americans’ struggle for freedom.
The second full day of the conference was devoted to the legacy and significance of America’s most consequential immigrants, the Forty-eighters. Enlightening and thought-provoking presentations were given by Dr. Peter Lubrecht (Newton, New Jersey), Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Müller-Michaelis (Hamburg), Felix Zimmermann (Freiburg), Pastor Klaus Lemke-Paetznick (Wilhelmshaven), Jan Jessen (Denmark), Larry Grill (Schleswig, Iowa), conference co-organizer Dr. Don Heinrich Tolzmann (Cincinnati), Dr. Gabrielle Robinson (South Bend, Indiana), Wade Olsen, Denny Warta and George Glotzbach (New Ulm, Minnesota), Terry Sveine (New Ulm), Dietrich Eicke (Lübeck), Dr. Julie Klassen (Northfield, Minnesota), and Marcus Bracklo (Bad Soden). The presentations and discussions were as interesting as they were varied, with everyone gaining a greater appreciation for the contributions made by the Forty-eighters and the great legacy they bequeathed to subsequent generations.
After a wonderful dinner and genuine fellowship among the conference participants and attendees, Carol Kahn-Strauss (who’d previously received Germany’s highest civilian award, the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) and Diane Fagen (president of the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum in Granite Falls, Minnesota) were presented with the Carl Schurz Award. Both women made heartfelt speeches confirming the soundness of their choice as recipients of the award named in honor of America’s most significant and well-known Forty-eighter, Carl Schurz.
Following this presentation, German Consul General, Herbert Quelle (Chicago) presented conference co-organizer Dr. Joachim “Yogi” Reppmann with the German-American Friendship Award of the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to German-American relations. As Yogi’s friend, I was particularly glad to see him honored in this way. It’s long been my view that his outsized personality has often obscured the many real and tangible contributions he’s made not only in the historical field, but also in the establishment of bridges furthering contact between and understanding of peoples on both sides of the Atlantic.
The conference concluded with “Thoughts on Being German,” a poignant and heartfelt address delivered by Hans Jörg Gudegast, aka Eric Braeden. Born in Bredenbek, Schleswig-Holstein, Gudegast experienced firsthand the horrors of World War II prior to his immigration to the United States in 1959. Energetic, athletic, intellectually inquisitive, and analytical, he fought stereotypes and incredibly long odds to become one of Hollywood’s most beloved and well-known stars. He has appeared in scores of movies and TV shows, including thirty-seven years in the signature role of “Victor Newman” on The Young and the Restless.
Braeden’s experiences and deep understanding provided a fitting denouement for a conference whose first day emphasized the Holocaust. Throughout his adult life, the humanitarian and activist has worked hard in promoting a positive, realistic, and balanced image of German-Americans and advancing German-Jewish dialogue. A man of strong convictions, Braeden believes “Nazi Germany would not have existed had we had a democracy. Had Germany remained a democracy, we wouldn’t be talking about the Holocaust. We wouldn’t be talking about any of this.”
Braeden’s life experiences also dovetailed beautifully with the focus of the conference’s second day, the important and influential immigrant group known as the Forty-eighters. Like the Forty-eighters who were honored at the conference — immigrants who were shocked slavery could exist in a country ostensibly embracing the ideas embodied in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence — Braeden, too, faced similar disillusioning moments. “I came here in 1959. I took the Greyhound bus from New York to Galveston, Texas, to the South, and I thought I had landed in a full democracy, and here I see signs for ‘Whites Only,’ for ‘Coloreds only,’ and the separation was stark.”
Having spent the better part of the last two decades trying to understand the Forty-eighters, it’s my belief Braeden could well have been a member of this significant immigrant group had he been born 120 years earlier. Like so many of the Forty-eighters I’ve studied, Braeden is straightforward, direct — some might even say blunt — yet at the same time, richly nuanced in so many ways. Having lived in America for over half a century, his fervent love for his adopted country has never blinded him to the fact that the struggle to live up to the ideals embodied in our founding documents is a never-ending one requiring constant vigilance. Like so many of the Forty-eighters, Braeden has never been content to sit on the sidelines. He takes a very active interest in politics and helps rally support for those he feels will best serve the needs of his adopted country.
As a German-American who embraces the best of both cultures, Braeden has devoted much of his time to strengthening the ties between the German and American peoples, and his exemplary efforts in this regard have been honored on many occasions. He’s been awarded the Federal Medal of Honor from Germany’s President on two separate occasions, been invited to the White House by President Reagan to celebrate German-American Heritage Day, and received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2007.
Yet, as much as Eric Braeden fosters German-American relations and as much as he is a loyal American citizen, he will also always be a German. Having a deep appreciation of, respect for, and loyalty to both countries is an inherent part of the man’s complexity. The inherent duality of his life was evidenced time and time again throughout his concluding address, as reflected in the numerous times he had to pause and gather himself while conveying the essence of what it means to an American who will also always be a German.
As Braeden concluded his talk, I remembered a previous remark of his I’d run across while writing a brief biographical sketch of him some years ago: “I grew up tough. I’ll fight you to the last — I’ll never give up.” What an apropos sentiment for a conference devoted to the study of the Forty-eighters and Holocaust survivors. It is precisely this trait — that of never giving up, of triumphing over long odds through the sheer force of one’s will — that conference attendees and participants celebrated at “The Legacy of 1848 Through Today.”